Before the tour
Back in 2012, Hokkaido was one of the destination we considered for our Honeymoon trip, and would likely have been our choice if not for the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011. Although a nuclear disaster typically takes more than a decades to clear off, and that would not have made it any safer for us to visit Japan in 2014 (with just a 3 years span apart), but we believe that the risks of short term exposure is minimal. Logic being we will only be there for 11 days and if there would be such serious side effect, then most of the Japanese should have been dead after 1,000+ days (3 years) of constant exposure. While it is not 100% risks free, we felt that it is not that dangerous to visit this beautiful country, especially Hokkaido being quite a distant away. However we took the necessary precautions and dropped the idea of bringing Jevriel along, which later turned out to be the correct decision. The trip would have been much tougher and we would have seen much lesser if he had tagged along. Furthermore he is barely 2 years old at our point of travel and he probably would not fully appreciate or even remember those places.
Amber had been to Japan several times but this is my first visit. Given that Hokkaido is a place that hold its beauty throughout the 4 seasons, we had to decide the time of visit. Initially we planned for Summer (August) as Amber wanted to view those lavender farms in Furano. I was unable to redeem our Krisflyer tickets in time and we had to make plans for Autumn (October) instead. Both of us had never view Autumn folio and this became a much anticipated holiday.
With our experience from our 2012 Europe free & easy, I was confident that we could do a much more enjoyable Hokkaido holiday than to engage a tour guide. After listening to the experiences of friends and some reading up, I figured that a self drive trip is the best way to experience the beauty of Hokkaido. Self drive provides flexibility to be almost anywhere we wanted but it is still important to have good planning and an itinerary that maximize the efficiency of driving long distance. It took me around 2 months or so to nail down the itinerary. Along the way it had changed whenever I read something new, or when the route does not make sense to be accommodated into the entire flow. By and large I still kept most of the key places and this is how it look like:
Hokkaido (Asahikawa) -> (Furano) -> (Noboribetsu) -> (Lake Toya) -> (Sapporo) -> Tokyo
Therefore my travel log is based on our research and actual experience of the places during Autumn over end October. It does not serve as a detailed planning tool for these countries, but more so as a memory keep sake for as travel logs. However you should still be able to benefit from some of my research, useful links, and my actual experience.
Country & Culture
Japan is very clean and organized. However it is pretty difficult to locate public dustbins. It seems like Japanese keep their trash in their bags and dispose them when they are back home/in office. While dustbins are rare in sight, it is not impossible to find one. Typically, toilets, fast food outlets, and shopping malls have dustbins. You do find some bins along the road but they are not at every lane/junction like how it is back in Singapore. Please do not litter just because you are unable to find a bin. It will be good to always keep some plastic bags obtained from purchases as they do come in handy.
Japanese are polite and there is great emphasize on not causing inconvenience or disturbance to others. Many places such as public transports and restaurants have signs instructing non usage of mobile phone. This is to keep the volume down. It does not mean you are not allow to talk in public but it is not desired to talk loudly. Common sense would tell you that you should not be shouting or using the car hone unnecessary as these are considered as rude actions. Throughout my days of driving and travelling in Japan, I have not heard a single horn.
Japan is a safe country and you are unlikely to be robbed, pick-pocketed, extorted or scammed. In fact items left unattended are usual still unattended or return to the original owner when found. There is no need to separate your cash or hide your money using security money pouches. However do still exercise some basic level of travel common sense as you ought to be responsible for your well being. You will find that even in red light districts such as Susukino in Hokkaido, and Kabukicho in Tokyo are pretty safe to walk around, as long as you do not intentionally look for trouble. Those Yakuza pimps generally do not disturb foreigners thought the niggers pimps would approach foreigners. Just kind decline if you do not need such entertainment. After all, real Japanese ladies do not service foreigners. Only foreign imported ladies service foreigners.
Except for rural or remote areas, you should be able to find convenient stores easily. They are everywhere in towns and cities and the most common seen in Hokkaido is Lawson. Do note that their convenient stores do not open 24hrs like ours back. They usually operates from 6am to 12am.
It probably would be an endless list of things to talk about Japan and its culture. Thus I would not go to such an extend but instead mention Onsen as the last item under this segment. Onsen, or hotspring, is a big thing for the Japanese. It is one of the favourite pastime and not surprising that some Japanese visit the onsen everyday. There is certain rules about using these public bath and some behaviors are a strict no-no. Some key points are:
- Anyone with tattoos would be deny from entering the pool
- You need to wash/bath thoroughly before entering the pool
- Do not drip the towel in the pool
You can get a better grasp of the do’s and don’ts here.
As mentioned we visited Hokkaido during Autumn. Temperature varies depending on areas and time of the day. Generally we experienced temperature around 10 to 20°C, and it went as long as single digit °C when it rained/during the night. Winter wear is recommended if you are going to scale some mountains, and it is wise to have several layers of clothing that can be adjusted according to the temperature. We had with us a maximum of 4 layers (thermal, normal cloth, cashmere, coat) if needed.
Another important factor for planning is the timing for sun rise/set. I forgotten about this part and planned our itinerary based on 7pm sunset, which we then got a shock when the sky was total darkness by 6pm. During autumn, the sun starts to set around 5.30pm, so plan well and make sure you are not strangled after nightfall. Driving during the night in cities and towns is alright but rural areas aren’t well lighted and you might be driving in complete darkness in mountainous areas. Exercise caution and drive slower during low light and rainy days.
Food generally cost more than Singapore. Or rather Singapore has cheaper food due to our culture of coffee-shops and hawker centres, which are not found in many other countries. Clearly Japan does not have such concepts and their cheaper meal are mainly fast food and small eatery that cost around ¥500+ (SGD6). I would consider Ramen and some of the simpler Don as economy food, which cost around ¥800+ (SGD9.50). A typical Japanese cuisine in a restaurant would cost around ¥2,000 (SGD23.50). If you order some seafood dishes, then it is pretty normal to see bills getting near to ¥4,000 (SGD47). Eating pure seafood dishes can cost up to ¥6,000 (SGD70) or more, depending on what you order.
One thing to note is Japanese has a habit of taking breakfast at home. Thus, restaurants and food outlet generally only opens after 11am, with very few outlets opening at 10.30am. This is a concern if you do not have a breakfast package in your hotel stay and you would need the convenience stores if you are planning to drive out early in the morning.
Shopping and Money matters
While shopping, I noticed many clothes, shoes, and accessories that were made in China, Vietnam and other countries. So while Japan pride itself for its high quality of goods, it does not mean that Japanese do not import items made from other places. Shopping is not my expertise so I shall not comment much on this. Just note that tax is charge at 8% of purchase across merchandise items in department stores, as well as food in most restaurants and convenient stores. Note that the consumption tax rate is scheduled to increase to 10% in October 2015. There is a duty tax scheme for tourists – effective when making purchases of over ¥10,000 (SGD117) at a given store on 1 calendar day. In case of consumable goods, such as foods, medicines and cosmetics, the consumption tax is waived for purchases of over ¥5,000 (SGD58), but the package of such goods must be kept unbroken until after departure from Japan. A passport is required when shopping tax free. Note that at some shops, it is necessary to first pay the full price at the cashier and then obtain a refund at a customer service desk.
Japanese Yen comes in super big denomination. They have notes denominating in ¥1,000, ¥5,000, and ¥10,000. They have coins denominating in ¥1, ¥5, ¥10, ¥50, ¥100, ¥500. During my time of travel, I had an exchange rate of SGD 1 = ¥85.
People and Languages
Working adults in the cities are smartly dressed in suits. The ladies and younger ones are fashionable and well dressed. Many of the girls are really Kawaii and you are hardly able to find any lady without makeup. The same does not apply as much when you get to the rural or remote places.
Most of the tourists areas have English speaking staffs. It should not be an issue to travel Japan even if you do not know any Japanese. Just pick up some common words or bring along a dictionary (nowadays we are highly digitalised so just install such an app in your smartphone or tablet). 2 of the most commonly used word would be すみません “su-mi-masen” (excuse me) and ありがとう “a-ri-ga-to” (thank you). In you need help, just smile and point to things you wish to buy or communicate with/about. But don’t point at people in their faces, as that is rude. Bowing is a form of respect and commonly practice in the service industry.
Japanese are conscious about hygiene and it is not uncommon to see them having face masks. Do cover your mouth when you sneeze and wear a mask if you are feeling unwell or coughing. Do not cough loudly without excusing yourself and do not spit or dig your nose in public. Basically do not perform those unsightly Chi-na Chinese behaviors. Sorry if you are one and reading my site. I meant no offense (but too bad if you are offended) but people from that country are infamous for their uncouth and rowdy behaviors.
Many retail outlets and famous tourist outlets employ Chinese that speak Japanese. You can’t tell from appearance as they have blended into the society. Furthermore we all have similar skin tone and features. You will only realised it when they speak in a non Japanese language.
Canon and Nikon are both big time brands in the photography arena. Japan has produced some of the greatest photography equipment in history and has continue to create new technologies. I did not compare the prices of these equipment vs Singapore but I somehow read that it is cheaper to buy them back here. As for safety, you will not have any issue carrying expensive equipment around. It is highly unlikely that you would be robbed or targeted by crooks.
Driving and Car Rental
Their GPS system is very accurate and highly effective. Throughout our 6 days drive in Hokkaido, I only experienced 2 lapses in their system. Having a English menu GPS is a plus point but even if you can’t get your hands on it, you should still do find with a Japanese GPS. It is not too hard to figure out how to use the system. Do not attempt to do a self drive in Hokkaido without a GPS. It is the most precious asset you need, more than fuels. With a GPS, getting around destinations is easy when you have a telephone number of that destination. You can also enter code map but I found using telephone numbers much more accurate. Code map becomes more useful when you are travelling to areas that does not have any telephone numbers, such as a waterfall in some mountainous region.
Petrol in Hokkaido is generally cheaper than Singapore. The price for Regular petrol was roughly around ¥164 (SGD1.90) per liter during my time of visit. You need to pay toll charges for using the expressways and they do not come cheap, in fact rather expensive. Under the “useful links” section is a site I had used for planning my route.
Speed limit for most roads are 40km ~ 50km, with expressways up to 80km ~ 90km. Most people do not keep to the speed limit in the expressways and it is common to speed up to 120km and faster. Having said that, it is your choice to speed as traffic offence do not come cheap in Japan. Sames goes for illegal parking. If you are caught for any of these, do make sure you pay your fines at the police station before returning your rental car. Failing to do so will result in a higher charge by the rental company, which definitely do not make any money sense.
Places I enjoyed
I love the sights driving across mountainous areas that were blooming with colour of autumn. Sounkyo Gorge was worth the effort but unfortunately we had missed the autumn colour at the top. The outdoor onsen at Mount Tokachidake was heavenly. Lake Kuttara and Hell Valley in Noboribetsu are places that I would highly recommend. Some areas of Tokyo are pretty interesting as well but I will have to revisit them to get a better feel.
Depending on your time of travel, you will need different clothing. But the generic items should not be missed.
• Socket or power convertor for your gadgets (check it out here)
• Maps (or you can get it when you are at the hotels) – with Google Maps Engine highly preferred
• Simple Medication though they are easily accessible in towns/cities
• Photocopy of your important documents (just in case you need it for a report)
• A good pair of walking shoe
• A smaller backpack for carrying items when you are out for the day
• Lip balm especially if you are from a more humid country
The rest of the necessity items like money and stuffs for shower should be a no brainer.
Below are some of the links that I had used for planning and have found them helpful.
- Hyperdia – Useful for public transports schedule and route planning
- New Chitose Airport JR Timetable
- Sapporo Municipal Subway
- Tokyo Metro
Car Rental Sites
- Kakuyasu Rent a Car – Most competitive pricing (I used this one)
- NIPPON Rent a Car
- NISSAN Rent a Car
- Sapporo Toyota Rent a Car
A very useful Japan Guide – Japan-Guide.com
Hokkaido Official Tourism Website – Visit Hokkaido